During the kids October holidays, we got a cheap flight (yay Easyjet!) to Madrid. I had lived in Spain many years ago, during a semester abroad in Seville, and my Spanish is still fairly good. I feel a LOT more comfortable with Spanish than French, I realized that recently when I chatted for a while with the parent of another kid in Peter's class from Columbia. I can pretty much say whatever I want in Spanish, but in French I'm often digging for words.
Anyway. Madrid. We stayed in the center of Madrid, at the hotel Medium Cortez. It was nothing special, the breakfast buffet in particular was not that great (very inefficient layout) PLUS it cost 10 Euro. We only went there twice. Too bad because if you ask the kids what the like about traveling, a nice breakfast buffet would be very high on the list. But it was central, everything in easy walking distance (or would have been, had Peter been a more enthusiastic walker).
Instead of the breakfast buffet one day we went to a little cafe nearby. I asked for hot chocolate, and was asked if we wanted colo cao or "chocolate". Chocolate seemed more appropriate, but it turns out that was more like melted chocolate - extremely thick and rich. Colo cao is what we actually should have gotten, it's basically hot milk with the chocolate powder you mix in. I guess I never had the real "Chocolate" in Seville.
The first day we went to El Retiro park, kind of like the Central Park of Madrid. The main attraction was rowing in the little lake, the kids had a good time playing around with the oars.
Later on that evening we went to the Prado museum. We went after 6 PM, when it's free. A good thing too, because the kids not too interested in all the paintings and we zoomed through, in spite of all my efforts to make it fun. They did give out a cool map to the museum, which had all the most famous paintings and which room they were located in. And they really had some very famous paintings, lots that I recognize from school.
This grocery store reminded me of the grocery stores in Seville that I used to patronize when I studied there. I lived with three Spanish roommates in an apartment, and at that time, and in that part of town, there were no actual grocery stores. There were little dry good market close by, and then there was a big covered market with all kinds of little stalls (fruit, fish, etc.) and that was it. My share of the weekly groceries (all meals), was about 10 dollars. Here in Geneva, that would pay for about half a cheap restaurant meal.
The level of English spoken in even the touristy part of Madrid, like the Royal Palace and the Prado is very low to nonexistent. Good thing I speak Spanish. English is much less commonly used than in other parts of Europe. For instance, in Amsterdam, you could almost stop any person on the street, ask them directions, and they would cheerfully answer in decent English, plus tell you to have a wonderful visit. Loved Amsterdam.
I saw this sign on many bus stops, marketing a Chinese language course. Pretty screwy, to be marketing Chinese when English is so desperately needed!
One day we took a high-speed train to Toledo. It was nice, but with one big negative - loads of heavy traffic speeding through tiny windy streets in the old town! It was very challenging trying to keep the kids safe. In retrospect and after having done more research, we should have gone to Segovia. There, the inner city is pedestrian-only, I'm sure I would have loved it!
We didn't find any good Spanish restaurants that we liked. After a few mediocre experiences, I looked up an Indian restaurant online, and we went there our last two nights. The owner was actually Bangladeshi, had been in Madrid 10 years and was just applying for a residency card which would let him work anywhere in Europe. We talked about the economic situation a bit - he said Spanish people were very lazy, always wanted to go in discos. Our taxi driver to the airport was from Iraq. He didn't speak English well, but talked a lot about the economic situation anyway (during our stay there news reports showed that the unemployment rate had gone up from 24 to 25%). Basically, "very, very bad" - that's what he kept saying all the time.